One problem is that old books are getting newer all the time.
I’ve been reading another boxful of bookseller catalogs that came in, and I find I have a prejudice against really expensive items which were published after I started working at this particular home for wayward books. Have I ever told you how you can tell an old book dealer? When they start using the phrase “used to get that all the time”, you’re dealing with veterans.
I read those parts of the catalogs for instruction. Whether I WANT to know it or not, I need to know that Jonathan Franzen’s first book is now a collectible, Lorrie Moore’s is not so hot, T. Coraghessan Boyle’s is even better than Franzen’s, and if you can get a magazine Thomas Pynchon wrote a short story for before his first book, you can demand a couple hundred dollars for it. I wonder how many copies of that I put out for fifty cents back in the olden days.
Still, I have to shrug it off. If I had gone to the library administrators in, say, 1987, and said, “I need a really big room where I can lock away all these books and magazines that are going to be worth a lot in a quarter of a century”, why, I’m sure they would have set aside a whole floor of the building for me. But I didn’t, so they never got a chance, and that’s just the way it goes.
I really read these catalogs for other things. I am never going to get—just to pick at random from this pile of catalogs—Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s shotgun or these two notebooks kept by a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of what James Madison or Thomas Jefferson had to say, or this book inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald to someone nobody realized he ever met. But it’s fun to read about them.
Some book dealers go out of their way to make the text fun to read, too. There are book dealers who figure a simple listing is all you need: if you’re the kind of person who would buy the book, you don’t need a lot of extra detail. But others, confronted with a book that is rare and valuable and incredibly obscure, will write a page or two of text to explain what the book is and exactly why you have to own it. They try to get in an air of “Wow, this is really interesting!” which can educate the reader, bring to light a longlost intellect, and, incidentally, add a digit to the price.
Again, selecting at random from the stack, I see what looks like a run-of-the-mill bad novel of office life (but here’s the name of a celebrity the author slept with and dedicated the book to), here’s a rather tired-looking western novel (but we’ll throw in a still from the classic western movie it was turned into long after the author was dead), and here’s a bad reprint of a classic philosophical tome (and here’s why the first two chapters deal with chemical reactions, to fool the government censors in a country where that philosopher had been banned.)
It’s fun to read these even when you do realize it’s all done int an effort to get you to buy something. (Which I hope is also true of certain blogs I have written, such as the ones I write from time to time to convince you to come and buy book catalogs.) I can’t name every book dealer whose catalogs really try to entertain and inform, but start with a Bruce McKittrick catalog, or one of the brightly-colored ones from Between the Covers, and then find more on your own. I won’t even name my latest discovery, the author of a catalog which includes a small manuscript volume of drinking songs for pre-Revolutionary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen to sing at society parties. These are not the crude, boorish songs we might immediately think of, he says, but delicately nuanced and gently erotic, going on to note that they are scored “for the male and female parts together.”
That certainly is one way to score. Anyway, you don’t find writing like that in the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog.